The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has ordered an investigation into allegations published in Rolling Stone Magazine that his deputy for training Afghan forces ordered a psychological operations unit to help him convince visiting U.S. officials to provide more money for his effort. Officials see the training program as crucial to achieving their goal of handing full security responsibility to the Afghan forces in 2014.
The article says Lieutenant General William Caldwell tried to get a psychological operations team, designed to try to influence the Taliban and Afghan public opinion, to turn its skills on visiting members of the U.S. Congress, academic experts and the top U.S. military officer, whose job it is to advise the president.
The article was, published Thursday, was written by Michael Hastings, the same reporter who wrote the Rolling Stone article last year about the former Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal. The article got the general fired.
Hastings’ latest story charges that General Caldwell illegally used the psychological warfare experts to develop background material on the visitors, and to provide him with advice on how to influence their views. It says the unit commander, Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, resisted the orders, but his team was required to comply, at least to some extent.
Rolling Stone says a spokesman for General Caldwell denyed that he or his staff ever used a psychological operations team to try to influence visitors.
By law, psychological operations, or what the Pentagon now calls Military Information Support Operations, may only be used to influence hostile forces or ordinary people in war zones, like Afghanistan. Pentagon Spokesman Colonel David Lapan says the investigation will determine whether General Caldwell or anyone else violated the law or military regulations.
“What the investigation will determine is what actions took place, and if any of them were inappropriate or illegal," said Lapan.
Psychological Operations, or “Psy Ops,” are supposed to be kept strictly separate from the Pentagon’s public affairs operations, which are supposed to provide accurate information to the American people and the world. Psy Ops, by contrast, can involve selective use of facts, positive characterizations of U.S. efforts, promises of benefits in exchange for support and other techniques designed to advance a particular military mission.
Such experts use information like local history, culture, religions, even superstitions to determine exactly how to best influence the target population. In this case, they were allegedly told to use such techniques to figure out how to influence the American visitors.
John Cheney is a former U.S. Army psychological operations specialist, who worked on such efforts as far back as the Vietnam War.
“It’s highly irregular for Psy Ops to be tasked to influence our own people," said Cheney.
Cheney, a retired major and vice-president of the Psy Ops Veterans Association, was not surprised to hear that the unit in Afghanistan resisted General Caldwell’s alleged orders.
“They could do that if ordered to do that, but I think they’d highly resist it and try and get that turned around, because that’s not their charter," he said.
Still, at the Pentagon, Colonel Lapan says involving psy ops troops in visits by American officials or academics is not necessarily wrong.
“It all depends on the circumstances and how it is done," he said. "On the face of it, it doesn’t have to be [wrong], it just depends on what it is they’re doing. It’s the actions, not just the assignment.”
Lapan says that is what the investigation will determine.
The separation of psychological operations and public affairs is an important concept in the U.S. military. But the article charges that General Caldwell - a former chief of public affairs for U.S. forces in Iraq - tried to blur that line, not only regarding the visitors but also by trying to get the psy ops team to develop strategies for influencing European populations. NATO’s involvement in the Afghanistan war is not popular in many European countries, making it difficult for governments there to provide troops, money and other forms of support. But they have been more generous in contributing to General Caldwell’s training operation.
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